Thursday, July 31, 2008

Veggie Might: Desert Island Gadgets

by Leigh

As a wholly self-taught home cook, I had never given much thought to gadgets, small appliances, or even utensils. Most of my supplies were hand-me-downs, gifts, or just magically appeared in my kitchen. Oh sure, I would stare at the utensil wall at Bed, Bath and Beyond but mostly to wonder what the heck most of that stuff was for and who really needs an egg separator? Doesn’t the shell do the job pretty well?

Of course, then I didn’t cook. My first five years in New York, I made my living as a waitron and was fed well by others. When I did cook at home, my culinary adventures never strayed far from ramen noodles, box mac and cheese, and grits. All I needed was a saucepan and a spoon, which my mother had supplied me when I went off to college.

Then I switched day jobs. Suddenly, I had to either cook for myself or spend my meager earnings on take-out, which, on my receptionist’s hourly wage, meant the former. I got good at creating easy, cheap, healthy meals with the tools I had. Enter a decent paring knife.

Until my pal C (thanks!) got me started watching cooking shows, I didn’t know what I was missing. My thrifty sensibility remains intact, but the gadgets are harder to resist. Some folks have a weakness for shoes or comic books; mine has become kitchen gear.

Oh, I try to play it cool. Alton, I scoff, do I really have to have silicone baking sheet liners? RR, I most definitely do not need a $15 Garbage Bowl™, thank you very much. Even I have a line; and this from a woman who bought a Martha Stewart cookie shooter on impulse.

Close-out stores are a great way to keep the gadget budget in check. Whenever I’m in the market for a new toy, I mean tool, my neighborhood Jack’s World (upstairs from Jack’s 99¢ stores) is the first place I check. Jack’s World is similar to Odd Jobs, Big Lots, and the like. I’ve gotten most of my indispensable implements there. (The cookie press was only $5! How could I resist?)

Factory-reconditioned small appliances can save big bucks when upgrading your kitchen or starting from scratch. You have to do your homework, but a little diligence will pay off. Sites like Amazon and Overstock can have great deals on brand names, and you never know what you’ll find.

I never aspired to KitchenAid appliances. They always seemed the stuff of TV chefs and people with that one-two punch of bridal registries and wealthy relatives. But when my $30 blender flamed out after 6 months of heavy hummus duty, I needed to go one better. On Amazon, I found a reconditioned KitchenAid blender for $50, more than half off the original price, and just $20 more the discount-store brand. Not only does it do an amazing job, it’s so, so pretty.

Now when I find myself leaving a trail of drool through Bed, Bath and Beyond, pooling at the utensil wall, I pull myself together, make a list, and try to contain myself until I can get to budget safety. (Sometimes I will appease myself with a little trinket, like silicone basting brushes or another inexpensive, absolute necessity. C, I really needed those ice cube trays.)

But when it comes down to it, I survived with very little for many years, and could do it again. Here are my desert island kitchen gadgets/tools that I cannot live without. These are the implements I’d save from fire, flood, and locusts. And I paid full price for none of them.

10” cast iron skillet—A cast iron skillet is an indispensable piece of cookware. It stews; it fries; it bakes; it does it all. And you don’t need to spend the college fund on Le Creuset to get a good one. As long as you care for it properly, a cast iron skillet will get better with age and last forever. Close-out store ≈$8

Silicone spatula—When you want something out of a bowl, food processor, blender, pitcher, pan, pot—especially glass—this thing will grab on and get it out. All of it. There’ll be no hummus left in that blender, no batter left in that bowl, no sauce in that pan. I had no idea how much magic this little do-hickey would do. Plus, silicone is heat resistant, so you can use it with your sensitive cookware when it’s piping hot. My cast iron skillet loves its silicone spatula. Close-out store ≈$2

Mini food processor—Because I have a tiny kitchen (my counter-top is about 1’ x 3’), nothing can sit out. The mini food processor is easily stored and is great for mincing garlic and onions, emulsifying, chopping herbs, and the like. It’s a great time-saver and perfect for a small space. Close-out store ≈$12; Factory-refurbished ≈$30

Blender—Shiny. I love my blender. Factory-refurbished ≈$30

Utility knife—For my birthday, my good friend, A, got me a brand-spanking-new knife, and my world has changed for the better. It has a pretty pink handle, it actually cuts (instead of crushes, like most of my crappy old knives do), and it makes me feel like a real chef. Now I understand what all the fuss is about.

What can you not live without in the kitchen? Any tips for finding them on the cheap?


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(Photos courtesy of Flickr member The Daily Planet and noshtopia.)

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Christina said...

I totally agree with basically everything you wrote, except the part about silicone baking mats (well, at least if you're a baker). If you look around, you can get one for under $10. For the amount of time and effort it has saved me in terms of sheet greasing and post-baking scrubbing, it has been absolutely worth it. I was convinced when baked-on jam peeled off of it like a window cling. Amazing!

melissa said...

I used to have a part time job at Sur la Table. Electrics got a 10% discount and everything else was 40% (except clearance). We used to start looking for holiday help in October. If you're interested, start in September, that's when the vendors come and give out free stuff. I've gotten everything from really good knives to a chocolate tempering machine free from SLT.

That said:
1. my good knife (and big heavy cutting board)
2. cast iron dutch oven
3. 10in copper skillet
4. silicone spatula
5. electric tea kettle (cheap at Asian grocery stores)

Jill said...

I have a few things that I really, really need in my kitchen. The first took me a long time to find - a garlic press that stands up to repeated use. We love garlic and I needed a good press. I also agree about the silicon baking sheets - I love mine! I have two and I really want a third. The amount of time and stress saved makes them totally worth it.

The other thing is my KitchenAid stand mixer. I put off buying on for years because I couldn't justify the cost. My husband bought me one for my birthday and I can't believe I waited so long. Just from the bread making capabilities alone I figure I've saved the cost. They go on sale often and if you combine sales and gift cards you could get it for cheaper. It is so worth it.

Oh! And my good, heavy, well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Can't live without it.


Anonymous said...

Agree with most of your recommendations. 'Not so sure about the blender though. I have a jug/goblet blender that I've not used in an eternity, the hand held Braun one does most of the jobs so much better. What it can't manage, the Cusiinart food processor does. To your list I'd add a pair of tongs- regular grocery store ones, a wire whisk (which I routinely use to mash potatoes as well) and a microplane grater. The latter is awesome for zesting citrus fruits and grating Parmesan, it's become indispensable. Re. knives: am I the only one that seems to use a small paring knife and a ~ 7" utility knife for 99% of my cutting needs ? Make sure to check out TJ MaxX, Marshalls and Home Goods for discounted pans.

The Q Family said...

I don't have the cast iron skillet yet but I think it's time for me to grow up and get one. :)

But for me, the one kitchen appliance that we must have it rice cooker.

-Amy @ The Q Family

Leigh said...

Okay, y'all are selling me on the silicone baking sheets. They might go on the next Jack's list.

Scott said...

I don't know how widespread Tuesday Morning stores are nationwide, but they have a great selection of quality kitchen items for not a lot of cash.

Amen to the 10" cast iron skillet. I really use the flexible, plastic cutting mats a lot and one of my favorite bargain finds is a set of nesting measuring bowls that graduate from 2 tablespoons up to 2 cups. Great for those recipe intensive Asian recipes.

Tori said...

I second Tuesday Morning. There is one on Long Island (I think, I'm not from NY nor have I been there) if you go to and search locations you can find where that illusive location is.

I've bought some of my favorite things there for hugely discounted prices. A Cuisinart Blender/Food Processor (it uses the same base for two different attachments)~ 35.00

A Le Cruset dutch oven for more than half off

A stainless steel pepper mill for 8.99

They also have housewares like sheets and towels for 50% off of normal prices. Nothing is better then 300 thread count sheets for an affordable price.

Cheap kitchen gadgets said...

Great article! I have a few favorites, but not near as many as you do! I love that striped red and white spatula!